- By Anbarasan Ethirajan
- BBC News
Bilateral ties between the Maldives and India, which hit rock bottom in recent weeks, have once again faltered after Male formally asked Delhi to withdraw its troops from the island nation by March 15.
The demand was expressed at the first meeting of a high-level core group from both sides in the Maldivian capital Malé on Sunday.
“Indian military personnel are not allowed to stay in Maldives. This is the policy of this government,” said Abdulla Nazim Ibrahim, the public order secretary in President Mohamed Muizzu’s office.
There are around 80 Indian troops stationed in the Maldives. Delhi says they are stationed there to maintain and operate two rescue and reconnaissance helicopters and a Dornier aircraft donated years ago.
The withdrawal of Indian military personnel from the island nation was the campaign promise of Mr Muizzu, who took office in mid-November. His campaign focused on the “India out” policy, with promises to send Indian troops home and reduce Delhi's influence.
On Sunday, Delhi said Officials from both countries discussed “finding mutually viable solutions to enable the continued operation of Indian aviation platforms providing humanitarian and medical assistance.” [medical evacuation] Services for the people of the Maldives”.
However, the Indian Foreign Ministry statement did not mention any timeline for the withdrawal of Indian soldiers from the islands.
The meeting between Maldives and India came a day after Mr Muizzu returned from a state visit to China, where he met President Xi Jinping and other senior officials. Beijing and Male agreed to expand their relations into a comprehensive strategic cooperation partnership.
Ahead of Mr Muizzu's trip, a row had broken out between India and the Maldives after three Maldives deputy ministers made derogatory comments on social media about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. After an uproar, the three ministers were suspended.
But Mr Muizzu's tone was defiant as he addressed a news conference after returning from Beijing.
He said the Maldives would diversify its food imports and health services abroad, ostensibly to reduce his country's dependence on India.
Mr Muizzu also announced plans to import food from Turkey and medicines from Europe and the US, and said Maldivians eligible for state health insurance could go to Dubai and Thailand for treatment. Currently, most people travel to India and Sri Lanka.
“We are not a country that is in the backyard of another country. We are an independent nation,” he added.
Mr Muizzu's closing comment was: “We may be small, but that doesn't give you permission to bully us.”
This was seen as a response to the massive social media backlash in India over deputy ministers' controversial comments about Mr Modi. Hashtags calling for a boycott of the Maldives trended on Indian social media throughout last week.
Analysts say these may be the strongest comments Mr Muizzu has made since taking office, suggesting a foreign policy course that is not India-focused.
“If Male seeks a diplomatic solution to the existing difference with Delhi, it is also counterproductive for the president to make such public comments that tarnish the Maldives' closest bilateral partner,” Azim Zahir, a Maldivian political analyst, told the BBC .
Such comments, he said, “could cause irreversible damage to India-Maldives relations”.
Many in the Maldives believe Mr Muizzu's plans to reduce dependence on India for food imports or medicines are impractical.
“You can bring food from anywhere in the world, including Turkey. But is it economical? Transportation costs will be more expensive than importing food from India,” Ali Azim, a senior Democratic Party leader, told the BBC.
He added that Mr Muizzu wanted to stoke “anti-India sentiments” ahead of the upcoming general elections in March.
Maldivian experts point out that Mr Muizzu also takes a strong stance on Delhi because he knows that Islamist hardliners in the country, including the ultra-conservative Salafists, support his policies towards India.
For Delhi, the latest dispute comes at a time when supporters of the Indian government are highlighting its “strong foreign policy” and India's rise as an economic and military power.
Nevertheless, India's Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar reacted cautiously to the ongoing diplomatic dispute with Male.
“Politics is politics. I cannot guarantee that in every country, every day, everyone supports us or agrees with us.” he told a gathering in the Indian city of Nagpur on Sunday.
As a small island nation, the Maldives relies on its giant neighbor India for most of its food, infrastructure and healthcare.
Several Malé residents say that while they are concerned about Delhi's response to the ongoing diplomatic row, they also resent India's “overbearing presence” in the archipelago.
“I think without some concessions from India, there is an additional risk of a serious dispute between Delhi and Male,” said political analyst Zahir.
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